The next day I slept in a little, partially because my roommates had to blow dry their hair next to my bed at 1am, but mostly because my feet hurt so badly after walking up and down Cannes and Paris, I could feel them throbbing as I hung my feet off the end of my top bunk. I avoided looking at them because I knew there was substantial damage. My shoes were shit, they were generic converse I bought on sale at Payless in Hollywood. The black ones actually had a hole forming near my arch and the sole was almost worn down to nothing.
When I woke up, I barely felt my toes. If I could make it two more days, then my feet could get a real chance to recover. What else was I going to do at my parents’ house?
Also, my lungs were still heaving and burning with milky coughing fits. I figured there was no better way to experience Paris (at least the first time) but broke, hungry and coughing.
After fueling on bread from the hostel’s free breakfast, I took the Metro to the Louvre and spent $10Euroes on admission after trying to bluff my way in on a student price with my Cannes Film Festival pass. It didn’t work.
You walk in and see so much, things you recognize but can’t recall what from; a book, a film, a past life?
First I hit the Mona Lisa, but I hate crowds, so I just took a picture of everyone closing in on her, as if she was a celebrity signing autographs.
I wandered and thought a lot- I thought about how Napoleon gathered the bulk of art for exhibition by ravaging other countries, about everything there that survived war, weather, devastation, more war, bombs, fires, theft . . . and then I thought about all the politicians and wondered if they learned history from the artists, instead of their fathers, would they still think of war as a means of resolution?
Some of the paintings rip your heart out and you think, “Someone saw this. Someone witnessed this.”
We have YouTube, and I can watch a female Iranian activist suffer a shot to the head and bleed to death through her nose, or see Gaddafi’s corpse played with like a puppet in a crowded transport van, but somehow it is uglier without the oils of the brush, and the tears of the eyes.
I walked through a special exhibit of Napoleon’s apartment put back together with his doors, walls and furniture. I brushed my finger along the door knob hoping to steal a piece of dirt or sweat kept in the groove of his hand, maybe a microscopic skin cell that survived time and travel, waiting for me to pick it up and put it in my pocket.
After about four hours, my brain couldn’t take anymore. I walked outside and sat down on a hill, perpendicular to a few young women who were laying out and chatting casually outside the museum. They wore khakis and shorts, tank tops and t-shirts- nothing provocative but still inspiring to the middle-aged gentleman who crouched next to me, lodged a still camera under his knee and captured about 100 frames of the girls.
I walked for awhile . . . just walked. There was a lot of space to walk, and plenty of statues to watch over me as I entertained the idea of spending what was left of my cash on an ice cream cone. I decided to wait and get my free crepe at the hostel between 4-7pm.
The wind blew over me, and I could see out over the city. There is just so much painted gold, so many happy children, so much blue, white and red to fly over you in pride- not the American pride, yelling “We do it the right way!”- the pride of a country that says, “We are still standing and look at everything we have saved for you.”
Back at the hostel, two girls asked if I wanted a jam crepe or a sugar crepe. I said, “Whichever you like best.”
The girl behind the counter said in a thick accent, “Sugar. It is better for the health.”
After my very humble lunch (we only got one crepe), I headed over to Notre Dame. It was after 7pm but still bright outside.
Behind the church, a four piece jazz band was playing. An old woman was awkwardly dancing to the music in a forest green beret and matching jacket with a flying skirt to give her wings on the occasional spin, she was clearly a member of the band’s entourage.
I walked up and smiled, weaving through the crowd. Jazz.
The vocalist said, in an American accent, “What a beautiful smile.”
Crossing behind another woman, as he said it, she looked down and blushed. She grabbed my compliment in crossfire. She can have it, everyone always compliments my smile. Its the one thing of mine almost everyone likes. Its my secret weapon and God’s gift to me.
At the end of their set, I did the awkward pat down for spare change to throw in their instrument case, knowing I didn’t have any money. The woman in the green beret came out to collect without making eye contact or smiling, her smile was only for the music.
A man behind me tapped my arm and gave me a few Euroes to drop in their case, and like a child at the circus, I ran up and dropped the money in the black velvet. The vocalist smiled and nodded at me. He said, “We will take a little break, folks, but be back in a few.”
Crossing the courtyard behind Notre Dame, I leaned against the Seine wall. The bourdon bell called out the hour for all of us and I wondered if there ever really was a Hunchback of Notre Dame.
(Did a quick search, there was: The Daily Telegraph discovered references to a real-life hunchback in Paris in the 1820s who worked on post-Revolution restorations to the Cathedral)
A man approached me, around my age, shorter, bald, not as handsome as my other Parisian suitor but with an equally charming accent.
He said something in French, and I said I was American. He said, “Ah, beautiful American woman. I see you standing here and I want to talk to you, ehh, you have boyfriend?”
I smiled and shook my head, the wind was making my hair fly all over the place. How could I be pretty now?
He said, “No … eh . . . I don’t understand. Why not?”
I curled a strand of spinning hair behind my ear and said, “Well, I did. But he wouldn’t commit to me in the U.S. When I said I was going to France, he wanted to commit. I said, no, you don’t commit in the U.S., I don’t commit for France.” I shrugged my shoulders.
He smiled and saw me eyeballing his cigarette. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
I shook my hand, “No, not at all.”
He put it in his mouth and lit it, then said, “You want?”
I smiled, “Sure.”
My lungs burned, but the taste of tobacco was sweet on an empty stomach.
He said, “May I . . . uh . . . kiss you?”
I laughed and said, “No, of course not.”
He stood back, palms out, “I don’t understand. You don’t have boyfriend. You beautiful American girl. Paris is uh . . . uh . . . beautiful. We kiss.”
I said, “There is obviously some kind of cultural difference. In America we just don’t kiss strangers.”
He took a drag, then looked up inquisitive, “No?”
I said, “No. Sorry.”
He said, “You try? See if you like?”
I said, “I like the build up of tension. The romance. Then the kiss. Don’t you like that?”
He said, “I don’t understand.”
I shrugged my shoulders and leaned over the Seine a little, “Oh well.”
He said, “So, you definitely not kiss me? No way?”
I shook my head and smiled.
He said, “Ok, can we talk about something else now . . . eh . . . politics? Do you like Obama?”
I said, “Yes, there is filibustering right now. It’s complicated. Too complicated for our language … um . . can’t translate.”
He said, “I didn’t tell you my name, because Americans they hate the Muslims. My name is Osama.”
I kept eye contact and nodded, “I understand. Compre.”
He said, “911 . . . the towers . . . we have nothing to do . . . never want that.”
I said, “I understand. Extremists.”
He threw down his cigarette and his eyes got wide, “Yes! Yes! Extremists. (using his hands to build a wall around him) Not me, not my family. They make bad name for all of us. That is not what Muslim believe. That is not our religion.”
I said, “We know. The smart ones know. Its ok.”
He said, “Oh my God, this is so good.” He held up his hands as if in prayer and pressed the tips to his mouth, he said, “When that happen, our hearts just . . .” His hands fell flat to his side, cutting the air in silence.
I smiled and put my sunglasses over my head, so he could see my eyes. I remembered that morning for a second, the radio alarm going off . . . rushing to the TV . . . “The Towers are gone! Again, the Twin Towers are GONE!”
He said, “So no kiss?”
I laughed and shook my head. Then he continued, “I really like that you . . . uh . . . talk to me. Many girl just look away and not talk. Like this.” He demonstrated the typical “nose up in the air” turn. A lot of my friends do that and, honestly, it saves them a lot of headache at the end of the day- but I never have the heart for it.
He continued, “Thank you, thank you for talking to me about my people. Its nice.”
I said, “Of course. Of course. We have to talk so we understand each other.”
He smiled and asked for a hug, and I gladly gave him one. He held me close and rocked me back and forth. I held tight onto my purse, just in case. Then he said goodnight.
Around the corner, on the bridge between the jazz and the direction of my hostel, I happened upon hundreds of locks, all chained together on this one section of the Seine, each imprinted with initials of couples. Old locks, new locks, some ribbons, some bike locks, all with initials painted on with nail polish or a sharpie- all forever secured in one moment, together over the water in Paris.
I thought briefly about finding a way to put Abe’s initials with mine somewhere . . . but our love has its place and it isn’t forever locked to a bridge in Paris, it’s in our friendship and in our chosen memories, but not here and not now.
There was enough delight in standing between two walls of everyone else’s love, I don’t have to be a part of it to appreciate what it was; an unexpected, sweepingly romantic gesture for everyone who walked the streets of Paris, in love and on foot. It wasn’t for those who pay for taxis to race from one end of town to the other. It wasn’t for the businessmen or artists. It was just for the romantics. It was for me.
That night, I called Aldrich and whined about having to go back to the U.S.
He said, “I know you don’t want to go, but you have to go.”
There was disappointment in it being the first time he didn’t try to sway me to move in with him. I knew it was a pipe dream, but I wanted him to play along a little longer until maybe I believed for real.
He then broke out in Bruce Springsteen’s tune, but with the wrong words, “♪♫ Back to the USA, You are Back to the USA ♪♫”
I said, “No, it’s BORN in the USA.”
He kept singing, “♪♫ BACK in the USA . . . ♪♫”
We spoke a little and I asked him if he understood me. He said, “I understand 80% . . . uh . . . uh . . . It’s easier in person because I can see the way you move, your mouth, your eyes . . . “
I moaned each time he mentioned a part of my body, he paused and offered a light chuckle. Then broke out in song, “You are going ♪♫ BACK to the U S A . . . ♪♫ “
Laughing, I protested again, “No! Born in the USA.”
One more day. How hard it is to be given everything you have ever wanted and then learn to let it go. That is the essence of love, though, isn’t it?